A few weeks ago I was in Copenhagen giving a new talk. I get nervous with new talks, not because public speaking makes me nervous, but because you never know whether a new talk sucks or not until you’ve given it a couple of times. And you don’t even really know what the talk is about until you’ve given it a few times. And it wasn’t until I was in the middle of this talk, which was ostensibly about ethics, that I realized it had a strong undercurrent of death throughout. And maybe undercurrent isn’t the right word. It’s quite possible that if you asked someone in the audience what the talk was about they would’ve replied “Death. That was some dark shit.” Which is my way of saying that you really want to see this talk.
Death rules everything around me.
Later that evening I went out to dinner with a couple of friends. We went to a place that specialized in “Nordic”, which I assumed meant eating whale and drinking mead while Thor Ragnarok played on a giant screen above the bar. But it ended up being a very nice cozy place, with an even nicer owner. The kind of guy who grabs a bottle of bourbon, pulls up a chair for himself, and proceeds to tell you about spending ten years in the Danish military. In between stories of Finns building saunas in Kabul, the topic of “being good allies” came up. To which my new Danish friend shouted that men our age had committed too many sins and done too many things wrong to ever be good allies in any sense of the world. And the best thing we could to for the planet was to die. (Just a few days ago Terry Gilliam did a great job of hammering home the point.)
Last week I watched as American school children walked out of school in protest. Because they’re tired of going to school and getting shot. Because they’re tired of their government caring more about fleecing their own pockets than comprehensive gun control. Because they’re tired of their classes being interrupted to practice active shooter drills. And more than a few of them are tired of actually burying their classmates. And as I’m watching these brave brave kids, I’m filled with equal amounts of hope for the courage they’re displaying and shame that our generation has left this problem for them to solve. We’re a year away from the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. We should’ve taken care of it then and there, before these brave kids were even born.
I start thinking that maybe my Danish ex-military friend is right. The best thing we can do for this planet is die.
Death rules everything around me.
About a month ago, I published a rather long essay on design’s lost generation. I consider myself part of that generation. We had an amazing opportunity to make the world better than it was when it was handed to us, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that we botched the job a thousandfold. We didn’t make it better. We made it significantly worse. I’ll quote part of that essay here and leave you to read the rest:
“I am part of design’s last generation. I’ve fucked up. We all have. None of us did enough. Maybe the tide was too strong, or maybe we were too weak. But as I look behind me I see the hope of a new generation. They’re asking better questions, at a younger age, than we ever did. And I truly hope they do better than us because the stakes have never been higher.”
Societies are not made up of laws as much as its made up of an agreement to follow those laws. And while laws are delivered to us in a top-down fashion, the agreement to follow those laws is upheld from the bottom-up. A code of ethics will not magically transform us into people who behave decently. It’s imposition, coming from the top, will have no transformative power. Only an agreement to follow it, made at the rank and file level, can change how we work.
This is where my hope comes from. I believe the people coming up after us will do a better job than we did. I believe that as a 5o year old white male living in America, my goal is to clear the path for the voices I’ve silenced either knowingly or unknowingly. I cannot be a good ally because I’ve benefitted too much from the world I was born into. And regardless of whether I wanted those benefits or not, I got them.
“If you are white in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist.” — Ijeoma Oluo, So you want to talk about race
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I am both those things. And if you are reading this and you look like me, you are too. Regardless of how well you’ve lived your life, regardless of how good your intentions were, you benefited from a stacked deck. And yet, even with the deck stacked in our favor, we couldn’t do the job. So yes, the best thing we can do for the planet is to die.
Death is always a given. It is not a choice. As a culture, we spend a lot of time attempting to delay it, or comically convincing ourselves it’s not coming. But there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. It. Is. Coming. And rather than spend a lifetime convincing ourselves that it’s not and wasting our energy attempting to outrun it, perhaps we are better served in attempting to earn it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the point of life is to earn the death that comes at the end. And perhaps, no — most likely!, that death is best earned by doing everything we can for those coming up after us. Earn your death by making room for the generation behind you. Might they fuck it up as well? Of course. But you already have. They still have a chance.
Death rules everything around me. Let’s do at least one thing right. Let’s die well.
This essay was originally published in a rougher draft, with even more typos, in my newsletter, which you should definitely sign up for.